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Calling this a “make or break moment for the middle class,” Barack Obama on Tuesday used the same Kansas town in which Teddy Roosevelt gave his “new Nationalism” speech in 1910 to try to refocus his economic message and provide a cohesive narrative for a presidency many on the left have found wanting.

Lamenting that the “basic bargain” (T.R. called it his “Square Deal”) that historically has made the United States an attractive place to raise a family has “eroded,” Obama made the case for beefed-up financial regulations and used the bully pulpit to urge Congress to approve his nominee for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the trademark of his Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill.

But he also cited the power of corporations and the heightened struggle of workers since the turn of the century, pointing to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street as inevitable social movement responses to narrow lobbying interests ruling the Capitol. And Obama praised Roosevelt for embracing what works in modern industrial capitalism while regulating and preventing what doesn’t.

“The free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history,” Obama said as he often does to assert his Capitalist bonafides, before arguing that this is so only when businesses are “open and honest” and industry isn’t dominated by consolidation and monopoly, by child labor abuses and union-busting.

Like Obama, Roosevelt was often tagged a Socialist, except in Roosevelt’s case it was for what are now considered uncontroversial necessities: the eight-hour workday, unemployment insurance, and social welfare programs.

Such progressive and activist ideas were indeed radical for Roosevelt’s time, whereas this president cannot be described as anything other than moderate or center-left. He’s more Wilson than Roosevelt.

That is, Obama seems to be trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, he says he doesn’t want to divide the 99 percent from the wealthiest, wants all Americans to be united, rejecting the rhetoric of the ‘Occupy’ movement. In the next breath, though, he will cite statistics showing how the wage and wealth gaps have skyrocketed, how the “one percent” is doing better than ever.

So which is it? Can all Americans, including the most powerful and privileged, join together, hand-in-hand, to forge a brighter future? Or is a more populist — and confrontational — approach (like that of Teddy Roosevelt) the only way to wrestle power and wealth from those who since the 1970s, when income inequality started inching upward, have been hoarding it?

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